If you’ve ever seen a calendar showcasing fabulous tropical beaches, chances are at least one of the images was of a Maldives beach. While known for its coral atolls, breath-taking beaches and azure seas, the abundance of marine life underwater is catching divers’ attention.
This archipelago nation in the Indian Ocean is not well known by Americans, though it’s a favorite getaway point for Europeans and Asians. This island nation comprises hundreds of tiny islets, many of which are portions of larger atoll systems.
Less than 300 of the islands are inhabited. Accommodations here are world-class, and are often made of stilted buildings that sit directly over shallow lagoon waters. This makes it one of the world’s most amazing vacation spots, even when you’re not diving.
The Maldives offers world-class atoll diving throughout the nation, as the entire place is a series of reefs, lagoons and island rings.
The liveaboard community is gaining world-class dive quality fame, less for the structures or wrecks, and more for the incredible abundance and diversity of sea life here. A trip on a liveaboard will give you an opportunity to come face to face with a Technicolor dream of corals, nudibranchs, whale sharks, manta rays and hammerheads.
This location has several names, and is also called Alifu. While most of the diving in the Maldives comprises barrier reefs, the unique thilas formations here, basically stalagmites without the cave, offer beautiful pinnacles teeming with coral and associated life. This must-see site is on virtually every liveaboard’s itinerary, often as the highlight of the trip. This makes it a busy site, but the area is large enough that you still don’t feel crowded.
If you take the time, you can begin with your face hovering close to the pinnacles, and explore brightly colored nudibranchs (sea slugs that look like they came straight out of Wonderland) and vivid crustaceans.
Moving back, you will begin to notice reef fish like the Napoleon wrasse, parrotfish, and sweetlips. Behind you, the pelagic fish hover, and you will begin to see the main reason that others come. Manta rays, hammerheads and whale sharks are all frequent and reliable visitors here, and they come in abundance.
Vaavu, or Felidhoo, is in the Southern atolls, and is an undeveloped stretch of 19 islands. The region here varies enough that it offers both beginner and advanced diving opportunities, and is a great place to bring a group with a mixed skill set if you want to ensure that everyone has a good time. Drift divers will delight in the Kandus- a deep water current that is fast and teeming with sharks, including white tip, grey tip and hammerheads.
This is another good site for whale sharks and mantas, though they don’t come with quite the reliability of Ari Atoll. However, it also offers huge pelagic schools of snapper, trevally and barracuda. There are also some great dives for spotting several ray species, or the homes of the lovely titan triggerfish. If you are on a liveaboard, be sure to take advantage of a night dive at Alimathaa Jetty — it’s considered one of the best dives of its kind in the world.
This was the first of the supreme diving atolls to be discovered, and is the busiest one of all to date. Also called North Kaafu, North Male is a great combination of many of a diver’s favorites. Barrier reefs intermingle with submerged pinnacles, creating interesting features to discover. Bright reefs hang along edges frequented by whale sharks, hammerheads and mantas. Several wrecks offer a chance to explore the sailing history of the Indian Ocean.
This is not the site to bring beginners — the depths, currents and complications of features make it better for intermediate to advanced divers. However, it offers some of the best underwater photography opportunities in the world.
While the optimum diving is via liveaboards, plenty of traditional diving and snorkeling are available too. Many islands have a single all-inclusive resort with a dive operation, so before you book anything, make sure your resort choice includes some diving opportunities.
International flights arrive at Male Ibrahim Nasir International airport near the capital Male on Hulhule. Getting around the Maldives is via boats such as water taxis and ferries or by seaplane. It can be expensive, especially the water taxis and seaplanes. However, many resort islands will send water taxis or seaplanes to get you from Hulhule, and in some cases liveaboards can meet you at the airport as well.
When to Go: Air temps averaging 75°-90°F make this a year-round dive destination, although liveaboard “season” is November to May because of calmer seas and clear weather.
Average Surface Water Temps: 80-86°F
Image attribution: https:https://www.flickr.com/photos/qin1109/